Henrikh Mkhitaryan will not forget the first time he faced Manchester City as a Manchester United player, but it is a painful memory, rather than a pleasant one.
The Armenian midfielder endured a 45-minute ordeal against Pep Guardiola’s team at Old Trafford last September before being substituted at half-time by Jose Mourinho. However, not only did Mkhitaryan not appear for the second half, he disappeared from the scene completely for almost two months.
That derby defeat came on Sept. 10, 2016 and the 28-year-old did not play again until he made a substitute appearance in a 2-1 Europa League defeat against Fenerbahce in Istanbul on Nov. 3.
Stories and rumours swirled around Mkhitaryan and his situation; many fans feared he would be offloaded by Mourinho at the first opportunity, written off as nothing more than an expensive mistake.
But as the former Borussia Dortmund player prepares to face City again on Thursday evening (10 p.m. ET, ESPN/WatchESPN) in the first Manchester derby to be played outside England, he has told ESPN FC in an exclusive interview that, while his first experience against United’s cross-city rivals was a bad one, it ultimately made him a better, stronger player.
“The City game last year was a hard game and I didn’t play my best game,” Mkhitaryan said. “I played bad, I can say that and I am not shy about saying it because everyone knows it. But I learned what I have to do for the next games and what I don’t have to do, so for the next games, it is going to be better.”
Mourinho insisted that the player needed to work on his physical and tactical elements to win back his place.
“Some players have the profile of adapting easily, but some other players need more time to feel the intensity,” said the United manager in October. “Some players need time to feel the competitiveness and the level of work without the ball. Mkhi needs time to become the top player we know he can be.”
Having arrived for a £26.3 million fee from Dortmund, Mkhitaryan fought through his tough opening period to prove his worth to Mourinho. He insists that he never feared he had made a mistake by signing for United.
“I never regret for things that I have done,” he said. “For me, Manchester was a new challenge, a new chapter in my life, and I will never go back. I know that what I am doing is good and is right. When I first came here, people were saying I shouldn’t have left Dortmund, but I know what I want in my life, I know where I am going and that I can do better and better.
“Manchester United is a very big club and I know the pressure here and the ambitions here, but that was why I wanted to come here,” he continued. “Of course I knew it would not be easy, but I am always ready for difficulties and to fight for my place. I can say that difficulties make me stronger. As more you have difficulties and you win through them, the more successful you become. This is what I mean. Sometimes life is very hard and very difficult, but you have to try your best to win every minute, every hour, to achieve your dreams.”
By the end of his first season, Mkhitaryan had won his personal battle by not only returning to the team, but also becoming a key figure in United’s successful Europa League campaign. He scored five goals during the knockout stage of the competition, including one in the 2-0 win against Ajax in the final.
He ended the campaign having made 41 senior appearances, scoring 11 goals, and with winners’ medals in his pocket from the Europa League, EFL Cup and Community Shield. A bad start turned into a good year, but Mkhitaryan wants more.
“My first year was good enough,” he said. “We won three titles, so we had a good year. But this year will be more difficult because we will be playing Champions League and the opponents know how we play, so we are working on that.
“Our main goal is to be better than last year because for Manchester United, the ambition is always the same: To win in every competition. It is not easy, it is hard, but it is Manchester United. If you are here, it means that you have to fight for it to get it.”
As well as that of the team, Mkhitaryan believes his own form will improve.
“I think this year is going to be better than last year for me and the team,” he said. “I am confident and that will give me self-confidence so. I am sure I am going to have a good year this year.”
And facing City in Texas, Mkhitaryan says, is another step on the road to ensuring that the 2017-18 campaign is the better than the last one.
“It is part of the preparation,” he said. “We know that the City game is a derby, but first of all, it is about preparation to be ready for the season. This is another step.”